We celebrate the heroism and courage of Mordechai and Esther and their victory over the wicked Haman. The name Purim means “lots;” Haman used lots to decide when to kill the Jews. And the lots fell on the month of Adar.
Though it has serious overtones, the story of Purim is meant as a farce. The stage is set by the banishment by the ridiculous King Acheshverus of Queen Vashti and the selection of Queen Esther in a beauty content to be the new Queen. The courtier, Haman, becomes the grand vizier, but Mordechai, Esther’s cousin and caretaker, refuses to bow down to him.
Haman decides to take out his wrath on all the Jews and convinces the King to consent to a decree calling for a massacre of the Jews throughout the kingdom. Mordechai and Esther work to foil the scheme. Esther wines and dines the King, reveals she is Jewish and pleads for her people. Haman is hanged, and the Jews take revenge on those who had planned to kill them.
There are many!!
Purim is preceded by the minor Fast of Esther, which lasts from dawn until nightfall. Queen Esther commanded the observance of this Fast, as told in the Megillah. When Purim begins on a Saturday night, and because fast days generally cannot fall on Friday or Shabbat, the Fast of Esther will be on the preceding Thursday. Typically during the Fast of Esther we don’t recite the prayer Avinu Malkeynu, since the fast leads into Purim. However, when Purim falls on Saturday night and the Fast of Esther is on Thursday, we do recite Avinu Malkeynu.
The reading of and listening to the Megillah are the primary mitzvoth of Purim. It is read on the night of Purim and in the morning. Our rabbinic tradition asks us to hear the entire reading of the Megillah.
As a pre-Purim ritual, each person gives a "Machatzit HaShekel" (half shekel) as a charitable contribution, recalling the period when the Jews contributed a half shekel to the Temple in Jerusalem. As we no longer use the shekel as currency, we are required to contribute one half of the "coin of the realm", which in the United States is the half dollar. We further are instructed to contribute three "half shekalim", or three half-dollars. To fulfill this mitzvah, we obtain 3 half-dollar coins and contribute them to charity.
We send two portions of ready-to-eat different foods to at least one friend. Anyone who cannot afford to send gifts to a friend may exchange meals with his or her friend.
We also give money or food to at least one poor person. Even a poor person who is dependent on charity for his livelihood gives gifts. It is better to donate to the poor than to have an elaborate Purim feast (Se’udat Purim) or to send expensive gifts of food (mishloach manot) to friends. Both traditions of matanot la'evyonim and mishloach manot reflect our eagerness to share our joy with our friends as well as with those less fortunate.
The days of Purim (14 and 15 Adar) are called "days of feasting and gladness," and therefore we have a great celebratory meal on Purim (Seudat Purim). This meal is held during the daylight hours on the day of Purim (after the readings of the Megillah).
Since wine was such a crucial part of the Purim miracle, wine is drunk liberally at the Purim feast. The important thing is to have the intention of fulfilling a mitzvah and not to drink for the sake of drinking.
And finally, of course, adults and children are encouraged to come to synagogue in costumes that reflect the joy of Purim, and many people customarily produce amusing Purim plays (Shpiels).
On the Fast of Esther, in addition to our regular morning minyan, we will have Mincha/Ma'ariv services, followed by "break-the-fast" refreshments. You do not have to be fasting to attend the afternoon services and join in the refreshments, but since we have several members in mourning, we would appreciate your making every effort to attend, so that we have a minyan at this important service.
In addition, we make some changes in our services. In the Amidah (and birkat hamazon), we say "al hanissim". In Shacharit, we do not say "tachanun" or "lamnatzeach". At morning minyan, we read from the Torah Exodus 17:8-16 (Vayavo Amalek). After returning the Torah, the Megillah is read.
The Mishnah teaches us that the only difference between the first Adar and the second Adar is that the Purim mitzvot of reading the Megillah and distributing gifts to the poor should be done in Adar II. Because of this, nearly all Jews today celebrate the holiday of Purim in Adar II.
The 14th of Adar I is called Purim Katan, or "small Purim." While there are no required observances for Purim Katan, there is a minor holiday aspect to it. In our prayer services, tachanun and lamemnatza'ach are omitted, we don't fast, and eulogies are not said at funerals. In some communities, it is customary to have a special, festive-like meal, to be extra joyous, and to give some reflection to the miracle of Purim. It certainly is a good time to plan the mishloach manot that you will be giving to friends. For families, it also is a good time to discuss and plan Purim costumes for the children, read a Purim story and learn some Purim songs.
Our rabbinic tradition teaches us that Adar is happiest month of the Hebrew calendar. In fact, we are told, "MiShenichnas Adar Marbim BeSimcha," which means, "when Adar comes, joy is increased." This joy is primarily due to the celebration of Purim.